Madeline Rotman has been fighting for food sustainability since her time at Brown, where she concentrated in Science and Society with a focus on Food Studies.
Now, she is Head of Sustainability at Imperfect Foods, a for-profit social enterprise that aims at tackling food waste through changing redistribution networks.
Imperfect Foods sells customers food rejected by traditional supermarkets through an online, customizable subscription service. These fruits and vegetables are deemed “imperfect” due to surplus, excess inventory, or cosmetic damage such as blemishes, shape/size, and coloring.
Rotman first met Imperfect Foods’ founder Ben Chesler ‘15 through her involvement with Brown Market Shares, an organization that redistributes food across the College Hill community.
“We realized that the food system was broken to the point where it wasn’t servicing all of the constituents,” Rotman explains. “We were thinking, ‘How can we redesign our system to fit the currently broken pieces?’”
Since their initial launch in Northern California five years ago, Imperfect has expanded to reach 80% of Americans. They have also launched their own brand of “upcycled” grocery products, turning wasted byproducts into packaged goods—for example, dried overripe mangoes from growers in Mexico, or broken pretzel pieces dipped in chocolate.
“We wanted to be a one-stop-shop where customers could purchase more goods,” Rotman says. “But they were asking us for more, and there was also more waste in the food system that we weren't capturing.”
As Head of Sustainability, Rotman’s job not only involves coming up with new ways of reducing food waste, but also transitioning business operations to be sustainable in every dimension.
Rotman’s responsibilities include ensuring Imperfect Foods has the most carbon-efficient model for delivery, creating operations that generate zero waste to landfill, and launching Imperfect’s first sustainability report.
She also adjudicates decisions where business and sustainability come into conflict.
“We don't have bananas, and we will never have bananas,” Rotman says, adding that “it's a really fun office fight that we have once a month.”
Regardless of customer demand, Imperfect Foods refuses to stock bananas due to their unsustainable shipping and handling requirements.
Ultimately, Rotman believes reconfiguring food harvesting and distribution networks is necessary to combat climate change, as the agricultural industry is responsible for 24% of GHG emissions. In 2020, Imperfect Foods saved 52 million pounds of food “from a lesser outcome” which translates to over 20,000 tons of avoided CO2 emissions.
“The food system is the number three industry to solve,” Rotman says. “We think we really have an innovative way to flip the grocery industry on its head”.